Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 Elite review

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The Tensegrity 2 Elite is an exceptional tent, in many ways.  Unfortunately the most significant of those ways is not easy to convey in either words or pictures, and because of this, the unusual design, and the high price I worry that an excellent tent may not be long on the market.

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We purchased (at an industry discount) the Tensegrity specifically as a family backpacking tent; we wanted the lightest and most compact package which would provide sleeping room for two adults plus an infant/toddler, as well as enough elbow room for diaper changes and the other acrobatics that are part of camping with a little kid.  Full bug protection, full floor, and good ventilation were mandatory, while serious storm resistance was not.  I was intrigued by the unconventional design, and beyond wanting to see one first hand, was convinced it would meet our needs.

It has. The most exceptional thing about the Tensegrity is, by far, how much livable space it packs into a small footprint.  88 by 50 inches does not tell the story.  First, the head end gets wider towards the top, and the rainfly/tarp overhangs still further outside. Second, the foot pole is positioned far back, making the rear wall vertical.  At 5’11” I have excess room for gear at my head and no chance of my sleeping bag hitting the rear wall or ceiling.  Tall folks will do well in the Tensegrity, even sleeping on thick air matts.  Changing diapers is comfortably accomplished, with all our gear inside, and there is plenty of room for M to breastfeed while I organize gear or do other small camp tasks.  We’ve had three adults inside, the shortest of whom was 5’8″, along with the kiddo and there was plenty of room for hanging around away from the bugs.  I’ve tried, and failed, to take a photo which accurately conveys how comfy it is to be inside the Tensegrity.  It so far outstrips the competition in this regard that the point simply cannot be overemphasized.

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The Tensegrity is unapologetically built for three season conditions, and prioritizes space and ventilation over weatherproofing.  No other singlewall, integrated tarp-tent has as much venting.  The front and rear walls are mesh with no fabric backing, and while both are well shaded from any conceivable level of rain splash, there is by design no way to keep the wind out.  The sides, which zip fully down and open, can be closed totally by a waterproof panel, or be fully open for venting.  That one can get so much airflow, and full bug protection, while being totally protected from ordinary sorts of rain is a very pragmatic design feature.  These are the sorts of conditions most folks in most places see most often.

That said, the Tensegrity is a single wall tent, and therefore the roof will build condensation faster on clear nights, as it lacks the insulated barrier of a double wall.  It’s tempting to compare the ~3 pound weight to the similar weight of a double wall tent like the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 and assume the later would do better when it comes to condensation management.  In my experience this is not the case, whatever advantage the Copper Spur might gain by having a double wall is given back by having less air flow and less interior air volume for occupants to expire into.  It’s worth revisiting the first point; while on paper the Copper Spur is taller, wider at the head and a bit longer than the Tensegrity, in practice the Tensegrity feels much, much bigger.  The most comparable Tarptent product, the Rainshadow 2, has sloped walls and must thus be over six feet wide to provide similar (less, really) interior space.

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Pitching the Tensegrity is not inherently difficult, unlike some of the asymmetrical tarptents which have become popular, but the setup process does not generalize well from any other tent I’ve used, and one does need to follow the instructions for optimal results.  Pole length for the grommet used is crucial, for example.  Compare the top photo, which is an ideal pitch with vertical tension along the door, with the second photo, where somewhat paradoxically too long poles prevent proper vertical tension, and thus slacken the pitch overall.  A lot of folks online get this wrong, and end up using the optional side guylines in addition to the front awning to tension the shelter.  These lines exist so that the awning can be rolled up in fair weather, and are sewn such that when you try to use them in concert with the awning they don’t add anything of substance.  The whole point the Tensegrity is that one line of continuous tension goes from the rear stake along the edges and down to the outer edges of the front awning, which in turn tensions the trekking poles and holds the shelter up.  Four additional stakes are recommended at the corners of the interior, but these don’t add much in terms of structural support.  And for fuck sake, don’t prop the pole ends on the ground, tension, and call it good.  Sierra Designs added the grommets for a reason, and the result is far superior with them in use.

This is the most substantive weakness of the Tensegrity, that these three stakes, and especially the back stake, get put under quite a bit of force.  You start the pitch from the back, and it is worth taking time to make sure that one stake is very secure.  In loose soils, equalizing two stakes to the one lineloc is probably a good idea.  Other than this, the Tensegrity performs very well within it’s inherent limitations.  It isn’t a tent for significant snow loads, and while the large, unsupported stretches of fabric do move a fair bit in moderate winds, the tent isn’t loud or unstable, and this movement seems to be part and parcel of the design.  Sierra Designs has wind tunnel testing videos on the product page which show wind resistance I consider quite adequate for three season performance.  There are lighter shelters with vastly greater wind shedding ability, but none of them provide anything close to the same amount of liveable space and ventilation.

It is worth noting that while the end to end length, and width of the front awning, are considerable the flexibility of the awnings angle makes it easy to slip the Tensegrity into some very small spaces.  In Utah this spring an ideal spot at the end of a long day had a patch of flat sand only a few feet longer than the interior.  I anchored the awning up and away a bit by wedging pebbles into cracks in the sandstone ledges and tying the guylines to them.  A bit of creativity goes a long way here, though that does add time to the pitch.

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Another significant consideration with the Elite (all silnylon) model is seam sealing, which due to the complexity of the design is a substantial undertaking.  Seams on the fly, floor, and sides all need to be sealed, and if you’re doing this in a garage during the dead of winter as I was in January at least two separate sessions (to allow the sealant to dry, before you repitch the shelter at a different angle) will be necessary.  Not what I would call difficult, but if a couple hour investment post-purchase is off putting the addition weight and poorer longevity of the PU coated (and thus taped) FL model might be indicated.

Besides vast amounts of livable space, the Tensegrity distinguishes itself from the competition (Big Agnes and Tarptent being the most obvious) by being built to noticeably higher standard.  Stitching and finish are exceptionally neat, and the details both little (linelocs with correct amount of nice cord installed, thick coated webbing on the corner tieouts) and big (#5 zippers, straight, no curved paths on the main doors) are done to perfection.  My only niggles are two; replace the two part guy lines on the awning corners with one single long piece for faster use, and make the triangle of fabric where the door zips come together stiffer so it doesn’t snag.  Otherwise Sierra Designs has hit all buttons, functional and fanciful, in a way the competition (whom I’ve slept in but never felt inclined to purchase precisely because they don’t do these things) never has.  Personally, I hope the Tensegrity does well, as this would be evidence of function winning out over hype.

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5 thoughts on “Sierra Designs Tensegrity 2 Elite review

  1. My issue is that it sags significantly in humid conditions and has proven difficult to set up tautly. It is definitely not perfect, at least for me, but what shelter is. I would like to see a Tarptent Notch for 2…

  2. As the father of a four month old, I’m just starting to think about overnights with the family this fall, and the Tensegrity 2 was high on my list. And of course the Poco. Now I just have to find both on a deep discount.
    Also, FWIW, I’d be keen to read more detailed backpacking-with-a-baby wisdom around sleep systems, clothing systems, expectations, etc.

    1. More posts on that in the very near future. We just got back from our longest backpack with kid yet (4 days, a little over 50 miles).

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